Author's Note: This is the last chapter, in the sense that I got tired writing it and couldn't see any way out of the hopeless mess it's become. Maybe someday I'll come back to it and try to edit it.
Chapter XIV: Shadows
Night is a grave physician, who contrives
The drug of sleep to heal day's bruises with,
The drug of death for life's delirium.
– Madison Cawein, Fragments
"Let me be sure I understand this," Elizabeth said slowly. "You expect us to believe there's a doorway to another world... through a mirror?"
Suddenly she longed for the times when Adam's penny-dreadful-inspired wild ideas were the only bizarre stories she heard. It was a lot less amusing when confronted with the evidence her employer had a tenuous grasp of reality.
But what about the thing in the mirror? a little voice niggled in the back of her mind.
Disturbing though it was, she had to admit there had been something there. She couldn't have imagined it. Especially not when Mr. Holmwood's clothes were still soaked with his own blood. He hadn't even bandaged his arm.
Elizabeth had witnessed enough unpleasant injuries to know how unwise that was. Years of listening to Victor's lectures about his medical studies taught her exactly how dangerous it was to leave an open wound unbandaged. Blood loss alone was deadly! He might have nicked an artery! Who knew what sort of infections he could have contracted from that blade?
"You need a doctor," she announced with the certainty of a person who had heard more about medicine than she cared to remember.
Mr. Holmwood misunderstood. "If you're implying that I'm mad–"
"I mean for your arm."
He stopped and looked down at his arm with a bemused expression. Apparently he'd forgotten his self-inflicted cut. Elizabeth suppressed the urge to bury her head in her hands. Had this man no common sense whatsoever?
Victor's younger brothers had an amazing tendency to get into all sorts of trouble. Inevitably they ended up with cuts, scrapes, and occasional broken bones. Elizabeth knew just what to do when confronted with injuries, even severe ones. She took charge of the situation at once.
"Adam, there's a supply of bandages in the second cupboard under the kitchen sink. Go and get them."
She turned to Mr. Holmwood and grabbed his arm. He gave her the sort of dumbfounded stare usually reserved for people who claimed snow was black. She didn't even notice. Carefully she inspected the cut. It was long but shallow. In some places the knife had even barely broken through the skin. Most of the bleeding had already stopped. Only a very sluggish trickle of blood seeped out of the wound.
A collection of silvery scars, so faint they could hardly be seen, covered the rest of his arm. Elizabeth spared them a dubious glance. They might have been caused by accident. Yet considering today's events, there was a strong possibility they were also self-inflicted.
"What are you doing?" Mr. Holmwood demanded.
"Your arm needs bandaged," Elizabeth said shortly. "And it needs washed, too. I don't expect that knife was clean."
Mr. Holmwood spluttered incoherently. "But– You– How dare– It will heal on its own!"
"Not if it gets infected, it won't."
The look of outraged fury on his face made her raise an eyebrow. Really, just how low was his sense of self-preservation? Most people wanted to be sure their injuries would heal properly. Perhaps there really was something wrong with his head.
Adam returned with the bandages. He had the common sense to also bring a damp facecloth. Then he held the bandages as Elizabeth cleaned the wound. Mr. Holmwood watched all this with the air of someone who had given up trying to make sense of events.
John liked to think he was prepared for any event, however unlikely. Goodness knew he'd faced enough of them to know what sort of insanity the world could conjure up. But this was something he had never pictured in his worst nightmares.
For an hour after he read the letter he couldn't believe it was real. Every few minutes he reread it, then put it down and tried to convince himself it was all a mistake. When he picked it up again it stubbornly said exactly the same. No, there was no way to avoid the horrible truth. This was real, and now he had to deal with it.
He was never the sort of man who could face a crisis alone. When in doubt he always ran to someone else who could support him. As soon as he reconciled himself to the situation, he flew down to the stables and ordered the carriage be made ready at once. While the servants prepared for his unexpected departure he ran back into the house and explained the situation to his wife as quickly as possible. Lucy listened with the grim, pinched expression that always meant there was an argument imminent. He sent a prayer of thankfulness up to whatever deity might hear when she shrugged and let him leave without starting the argument there and then.
When he reached Thomas's house he found his cousin in almost as much of a state as he himself was.
"I can't believe this!" his cousin shouted.
John grimaced. Well, at least he was spared the trouble of explaining it all. "You've already heard, then."
"Heard what?" Thomas asked. He didn't wait for an answer. "That blithering idiot of a housekeeper almost let the Otherworld into my house. Then she had the audacity to worry about my health and she insisted on bandaging my arm!"
For a long minute John could only stand and gape at him. The first part of that was truly alarming. The second, on the other hand...
He struggled to find something to say. "That was, er, nice of her?"
Thomas gave him a look of the utmost contempt. "Nice of her? I would have healed perfectly well without her clumsy interference!"
"But she doesn't know that," John pointed out. Just in case Thomas had completely taken leave of his senses – you could never be sure what that idiot would think of next – he decided to add, "It's much better for everyone if she continues not to know that."
Thomas gave him a disgusted look. "I know that! How stupid do you think I am?"
John was wise enough not to answer that. He quickly changed the subject. "I didn't come here to talk about your housekeeper. I came because... well, read this letter."
He held out the letter that had caused him so much anxiety in the last hour. Thomas read it. John could see the exact minute he realised what he was reading. His expression went from blank boredom to an incredulous frown. The frown deepened with every word. By the time he finished it he could have killed someone with the force of his glare alone.
"Someone is asking you to blackmail me?"
That was so painfully obvious that it wasn't worth confirming it.
"He's helpfully signed his name," John said. "Edward Hyde. I haven't a clue who he is. Asked Lucy, and she doesn't know either. How do you think he got my address?"
"I'm more worried about how he got my name and this information." Thomas read the letter again. His lips twisted into a dour, humourless smile. "Whoever he is, he isn't nearly as clever as he thinks. The irony of trying to blackmail me about one of the murders I haven't committed!"
John glanced nervously at the door. If anyone happened to be listening outside... But it was shut tight, and made of such heavy wood that an eavesdropper would hear nothing clearly.
"He hasn't given any address," Thomas continued. "And he told you to leave your response in one of the busiest post offices in the city. Well, he's not hiding his identity as well as he thinks. He knows this house very well; he mentions all the secret rooms I know about and even a few I don't." He sounded disgruntled at having to admit anyone knew something he didn't. "Either he lived here himself or he knew someone who did. That narrows the list of suspects down considerably. I believe the last owner was a doctor. We'll start with him."
That was all well and good, but he was so busy being a detective he'd forgotten their more immediate concern. "What answer will I send to the letter?"
Thomas didn't answer. He was busy muttering to himself in a confused collection of every language he spoke. John tapped his foot against the floor impatiently. It was bad enough that he had to deal with a world that made no sense. It was just plain not fair that he also had to deal with insane relatives who made even less sense than the world.
He leaned over and shouted in Thomas's ear. "Hello? Can you hear me?"
The ear-splitting indignant squawk and the blow to the face he got in return were both painful. Yet they were almost worth it when he saw the look on Thomas's face.
"How dare you?"
John shrugged, unrepentant. True, the side of his face still stung, and there was still a faint ringing in his ears. But he'd faced far worse over the years without getting as much amusement in return.
"I said, what answer should I send? Should I tell him to go to hell? Threaten him? Tell him you know who he is?"
When one was dealing with Thomas, one had to be prepared to tell any number of lies for the flimsiest reasons. John wouldn't really be surprised if his cousin told him to say Mr. Hyde was really an old acquaintance who Thomas had much blackmail material against. Even so he wasn't prepared for Thomas's actual reply.
"Don't answer it at all."
John gaped at him. "But– He'll–"
"What do you think he'll do? Go to the newspapers?" Thomas scoffed. "He has no evidence. If he did he wouldn't ask you for it. Just ignore his letter."
The door of Thomas's library was very thick. Nothing could be heard through it. He knew this, and had no fear of eavesdroppers. What he didn't know was that the floor was not as think. Someone standing in the wine cellar directly below would be able to hear almost every word spoken in a normal voice.
For some strange reason the wine cellar was not actually used. Adam knew enough about conventional behaviour to know this was odd. Still, just because a room was empty was no reason to let it gather dust. Every day he swept the floor in the wine cellar. Every day he dusted the shelves. If ever Mr. Holmwood decided to store wine there, it was in perfect condition and ready for any number of bottles.
Today he was unusually late with his daily dusting. Normally he finished it in the morning. The events with the mirror had left him far behind schedule. It was a good thing there was never much dust to remove in the wine cellar. Not like it had been when he first arrived. Back then the whole house had been practically smothered in the stuff.
Adam set to work with a vengeance. He dusted the shelves, swept the floor, and wiped the lids of the empty suitcases that someone had apparently left in here and then forgotten about. It was strange. They were all in fairly good condition. Some looked quite expensive. If they were Mr. Holmwood's then he displayed a shocking lack of regard for his own property. If they weren't, the previous owner must have left them when he moved.
The whole time he worked he was vaguely aware of voices overhead. He paid little attention to them, dismissing them as a radio in the room above.
Then he distinctly heard the name "Edward Hyde". Adam froze in the middle of brushing away a cobweb. He listened attentively. Now he recognised one of the voice's as Mr. Holmwood's. The other's was a stranger's, yet it was familiar too. It took him several minutes to place it. The second person was one of Mr. Holmwood's friends who visited occasionally. Adam didn't think he'd ever heard his name.
"The irony of trying to blackmail me about one of the murders I haven't committed!" Mr. Holmwood exclaimed.
Adam dropped the duster. It fluttered silently to the floor, scaring a few spiders. He stared up at the ceiling as if he thought he might be able to see right though it by looking hard enough. His grasp of English had greatly improved in the weeks since his arrival. Now he was reasonably sure he was fluent, even if his accent still lingered. But perhaps he was misunderstanding something. Mr. Holmwood's phrasing made it sound like he really had committed murders. Surely that couldn't be what he meant.
He thought of the stakes again. A tendril of doubt wormed its way into his mind. He'd been so sure those were meant to kill vampires. What if he was wrong? What if they were meant to kill people instead?
Mr. Holmwood continued talking. Adam listened, hardly daring to breathe. He felt a sinking sensation when his employer announced that whoever they were talking about knew the house very well. The remarks about a letter and a blackmail attempt made no sense to Adam. They didn't need to. He could guess exactly what was happening from what little he did understand.
Elizabeth was right. There was something very suspicious about Mr. Holmwood. And somehow he knew Edward Hyde.
Adam's first thought was to openly question Mr. Holmwood about it. He changed his mind when he remembered the comment about murders. If his employer really was a murderer, Adam might very well become his next victim.
When faced with any situation he didn't know how to deal with, he always fell back on a tried and tested method of getting out of them. He went to Elizabeth.
She'd just finished putting dinner in the oven. Adam burst into the kitchen to find her taking off her oven gloves. She took one look at him and groaned.
"Now what is it?"
He spoke without thinking. "What does it mean if I talk about a murder I haven't committed?"
The oven gloves fell out of Elizabeth's hands. "What did you do."
It wasn't a question. Adam paused, briefly struck dumb by the realisation she thought he was talking about himself. "I didn't do anything!"
Her sceptical expression was frankly rather insulting. "Then what are you talking about?"
Adam tried to explain. "I heard Mr. Holmwood talking. Someone's trying to blackmail him for a murder he didn't commit."
Elizabeth's expression remained sceptical. "Well, that doesn't say much for the blackmailer's intelligence. I still don't see what it has to do with us. Let Mr. Holmwood sort it out."
"But the way he said it!" Adam protested. He paused to gather his thoughts. "It sounded like he has committed murders, but not this one."
A flicker of alarm crossed Elizabeth's face before she went back to looking disbelieving. "Adam. If the events of the last few days have taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't pry too much into what happens in this house."
Despite what people might assume, Adam was in fact capable of taking a hint. Sometimes. If that hint was applied repeatedly, and with the force of a bludgeon. He understood perfectly what Elizabeth meant. So he changed tactics.
"Mr. Hyde is the person blackmailing him."
This didn't get the reaction he expected. Elizabeth just looked blank. "Who?"
She continued to stare.
Adam tried again. "Edward Hyde. You remember? The man who sent me to London. The one I couldn't find again."
"Oh, that Edward Hyde." Elizabeth's tone suggested they knew at least fifty Edward Hydes and she couldn't be expected to remember all of them. "It can't be the same Edward Hyde. Do you really think a stranger you met somewhere in Germany could be blackmailing Mr. Holmwood? It's far too much of a coincidence. Now stop talking nonsense and let me set the oven. The dinner will either burn to a crisp or not cook at all if you send us on a wild goose chase again."
There was really nothing Adam could say to that.